Tuesday, 19 March 2013


Independence does not ‘just happen’. It is a culture in the classroom and it is structured. It is encouraging failure and questioning. It is the pupils working harder than the teacher, or, at least, being encouraged to. It will not happen overnight and takes as much planning as a didactic, teacher led lesson.

Below are a series of points and ideas that can help you to develop a culture of independent and co-dependent learning in your classroom.

To develop independence:

Say less. Step back and allow the pupils to fail. Making mistakes is acceptable and normal, and nobody should fear it.

It is more of a style than a resource. It must be built up over time. This could be during the development of skills or knowledge, leading to a time when the pupils can approach the work without you. Let them go, don’t fear losing control.

Constantly expect independence. Questioning is vital – both your questions, and, perhaps more importantly, the pupil’s questioning. Encourage difficult questions. Challenge their ideas.

Use focused group work to refine skills and develop co-dependence. Encourage them to ask each other before they ask you.

Frame your lessons differently. Use questions instead of objectives. Expect them to interrogate and analyse the outcomes so that they fully engage with them. Never have them copy anything blindly. Make them think from the moment they enter your room.

Plan for independence. Build up a range of techniques that they can use for a certain type of task. Differentiate so it is accessible. Allow some range of choice, where appropriate, so that tasks can be completed independently. Set work in the zone of proximal development – it must be attainable, but challenging. Assessment will help you plan effectively for this.
In summary – step back, say less, challenge more, encourage failure, encourage difficult questions. Make them think

Monday, 18 March 2013


Teaching is balance.
Teaching is both art and science.
Teaching is an act of reaction and an act of rebellion.
Teaching relies on both knowledge of self and knowledge of others.
Teaching is active and reactive.
Teaching is evidence and intuition.
Teaching is the old and the new.
Teaching is both collaborative and individualistic.
Teaching is pleasure and teaching is pain.
Teaching is laughter and teaching is tears.
Teaching is both deliberate and accidental.
Teaching is planned and teaching is freestyle.
Teaching is the heart and teaching is the head.
Teaching is rational and irrational in equal measure.
Teaching is passionate and dispassionate.
Teachers teach and teachers learn.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Relevance of #HipHopEd

The relevance of #HipHopEd is relevance. The relevance of the content. The relevance of the voices. The way it allows those who may not have a voice through 'mainstream' channels a voice that becomes relevant and powerful.

HipHop was created from necessity, and has morphed into various forms throughout its existence, each showing the creativity and relevance of the culture as a whole. It's been relevant all along - gangster as the crack epidemic gripped American cities, plush and opulent in the boom years, as wealth was ostentatiously flaunted, gritty and raw in London's East End as the wealth in the Docklands and City didn't spread. It's had reactionary voices, hippy voices, voices of faith and commercialised voices.

HipHop is always relevant.

However, is #HipHopEd always relevant? Perhaps if you teach in the leafy lanes of Surrey, you might argue, it isn't. Nevertheless, I'd wager that you'll find someone there who's been touched by HipHop. If the teacher isn't into HipHop, can they use #HipHopEd? Yes - I've seen plenty of English teachers talk about Akala's TED Talk and his 'HipHop or Shakespeare' game. To be honest, it's the best way I've found yet of teaching iambic pentameter, too!

Where I teach, I'd argue it's fundamentally relevant. It's a form of expression valued by the children I teach - the elements of HipHop inform their dress, their speech, their interests. Don't Flop and SBTV are their Going Live and CNN. They break, lock and pop. They value, and know, voices from Giggs to Guru; they've heard Wu Tang from their parents.

But education isn't 'for them'. It wasn't for their parents, and that's been passed down, understandably.

#HipHopEd is not a panacea for society's race and class ridden ills, for the generations of dispossession that have led us to a society of haves and have-nots, a mere goose step and Daily Mail editorial away from Proles and Party members. Nor is it a quick fix, something to lob in to a lesson, to show you're down.

It's a way of showing, of proving, to pupils that they can have a voice, that their experiences and thoughts are relevant to an increasingly irrelevant education system, which values the chronological, narrative free teaching of our collective story. It's understanding that there are links between a 19th Century French short story and Akala's lyrics; indeed, it's teaching the words of Akala as seriously as you might teach the words of Shakespeare. It's the confidence to take the notion of sampling into an English lesson when it comes to identifying the themes of a genre or the key evidence in a text. As Chris Emdin and GZA note in this video, it's spotting the power and potential of a student and unlocking it through the codes and forms of HipHop. It's Shake the Dust, where poets and MCs worked powerfully with children, leaving a lasting legacy of engagement and understanding, in my school at least, among children, some of whom has been, until then, hard to reach. It's the teacher sampling ideas in different contexts, keeping it fresh, using limited resources to create something powerful and engaging.

#HipHopEd is growing in the UK, but with good links to the US, innovators like Akala and Jacob Sam-LaRose, and an innovative network of like-minded souls - not to mention the elements of the culture itself - it can grow into a real, purposeful and relevant force. It can harness the spirit and creativity of people to remix education into a new form.

It is, and can be, a powerfully relevant force. As proven in this video, which says all I've said, and says it better.

Sunday, 6 January 2013


The title of this post might make you think that it's about ensuring that pupils enjoy their lessons, all of them, visibly, whilst making rapid and sustained progress which they can explain articulately, using language and concepts way beyond their years.

It isn't. It's about you enjoying your teaching.

We all came to teaching for different reasons, and one of the reasons we stay in teaching is that, despite it all, it is incredibly enjoyable. I won't waste time going into all of the factors that make it a challenge, or patronise you by telling you how amazing it can be. Instead, I'm going to explain how I made myself enjoy and, to be honest, love teaching again.

That's right. For a while, I wasn't enjoying it. I didn't fear it; I simply didn't enjoy it.

My first years of teaching were a crazy blur of trial and error. I loved it. I used a range of strategies, some didactic, some collaborative. Some worked, some failed. Pupils did well, mostly, and I felt like I was onto something.

What changed? A few subtle things. The school's progress agenda spread. We got into the whole progress check, colourful pieces of card, flash animations idea of there being one type of good lesson and one type alone. As this happened, I progressed to head of department. New to the job, I felt I had to take these ideas on. Please note - lots of these ideas are good, valid and solid ideas, which I still use. I understood why we were working this way, but slowly began to feel constrained by the need for so many activities, and objectives being presented like this, and using various tools to demonstrate the progress that was being made. I wasn't teaching like myself.

Just over a year ago, we received the visit (a successful one) we had been preparing for, and it was crunch time. I made the decision to ensure that I enjoyed teaching again. I started playing. Instead of using the state- sanctioned WALT / WILF combo, I experimented with a range of styles, some giving freedom to pupils, others being direct and instructional. I mixed and matched. I did whole lessons without an explicit progress check. I went wildly off scheme.

I was observed, and it was fine. My team were encouraged to do the same, and, overall, the response has been great. Walking down my corridor, you see teachers enjoying teaching, and pupils enjoying learning. We work on thematic schemes, giving us the freedom to go our own way, or follow the pupils' curiosity. At the same time, SLT were looking at ways to move us further and maintain the progress we had made. They changed the observation system from a Mock-sted style hell to occasional small drop ins which aim to catch people working realistically. This contributes, in my opinion, to an atmosphere where people just work, and if you work, and enjoy it regularly, that will be seen. Now all staff are being encouraged to innovate and take the structures we'd developed that step further (please note that I am not claiming responsibility for this - I am but one cog in the wheel).

Since I've been working with this attitude, things have actually become harder. Fatherhood hit me, we ripped our house apart and put it back together, there was some small problem with GCSE results in the summer, but my teaching has been, by and large, the best it has ever been.

It's not because of a magic formula. It's not because I use SOLO (which I do) or because my pupils sit in rows (which they do, sometimes - I have a transforming classroom set up, which year ten can change to any setting in less that two minutes!) or because I lecture from the front (once I start...) or because I let the pupils select their work from a menu.

It's because I do all of these, and more, when I see fit. It's because I teach what I want to teach how I want to teach it - and curricular targets, SLT, Michael Gove and anyone else that has anything to say be damned. All I care about is my pupils being well educated, with rigour, detail, enjoyment, collaboration, context and purpose all paramount. Yes - I'm aware that is a logical fallacy, but again, I don't care.

To anyone wanting to fight back against the negative publicity, the fear and the loathing, just enjoy yourself. Fight your corner. Love what you do, every day, and then the buggers can't grind you down!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Systems and culture

We have culture. A developing culture, but hopefully a clear one. One which aims for excellence, to be purposeful, relevant, reflective and thoughtful.

We also have systems. These systems are developing too. They have to adapt to external pressures, unlike our culture.

This is what I'd like to see.

Systems which are elegant, relevant and effective. No clutter, no excess or wastage; just purposeful, useful systems for measuring and checking, planning and assessing. They need to be adaptable and we need to reflect on their use.

A culture which is thoughtful, and all of the other adjectives above, but also owned by all, shared, valued and believed in. Culture is an abstract concept, in some ways, but ours must be as tangible as jellied eels in the East End, dripping on bread 'up north' and potent cider in the South West.

To that end, I want to know what you think. Are our goals clear? Are they shared? Do the systems we has support the culture we're growing? So you have any concerns, worries or questions? What would you like to see, to discuss or to explore?

Sunday, 23 September 2012


In my department, we've spent a couple of years improving our schemes. At first, they were non-existent; at best, they were collections of vague objectives copied from curriculum documents and a task or two for a novel. There was no notion of progress, assessment or differentiation.

That changed as the school changed. Our schemes became thorough, well mapped and useful. They were differentiated. Progress was planned for.

It didn't seem enough. Reading the ofsted document 'Excellence in English' put the notion of relevance in my mind. The best laid plans for literature in year ten were, on the surface, superb. In reality, that realism and relevance was missing.

Why should they care? Beyond snaring enough marks for a certain grade, what was their motivation?

The answer came to me when I was strolling slowly home at about 3.04 one sunny afternoon, having worked all the way through from 8.57.

Thematic schemes would fix my problems. War poetry was 'dusty' and 'dead' - none of them cared about the classics of the genre. Sure, you could drop in Casualties of War by Rakim, or show a spot of Saving Private Ryan, but it still didn't seem to do the job.

Thematic schemes would place the idea of conflict in its wider context, relating to the reality of modern society. It would allow the teaching of persuasive techniques, the study of journalism, the writing of short stores - a rounded education, rather than an excessive focus on narrow objectives over a six week period, before moving onto another set of AOs or AFs after the next break.

Our schemes had the basics, forced in by the needs of the school at a certain stage of its journey. Relevance and a thematic focus would allow us to move to the next level. We started adapting our existing schemes this year. In the conflict module, we studied 9/11 on 9/11 - in a multicultural, multi faith classroom, the discussions provoked engaged students like never before. Simple questions about their views on war led to the realisation that they think war is a normal state of affairs. Their reflection in this was powerful. Their responses and thoughts when studying poetry by Ed Poynter showed how they'd developed their thinking - much more personal and considered than before.

The year seven induction scheme became more powerful when they were writing for a real audience, knowing their work would get to that audience. Revamping of the school's digital media facilities further enhances opportunities to do this.

Of course, all good teachers create relevance somehow, often intuitively. As an objective for a department, however, it is powerful. It has promoted discussion of teaching in new ways, and encouraged the sharing of ideas and resources amongst the department.

We have many more targets. Improving enrichment opportunities, leading the promotion of reading, increasing independence as engagement. The list goes on. Relevance is the start. We can show our passion, show why we care, why we teach what we teach, why we love the subject.

An unexpected response...

A response from Mr Gove's office to my previous blog, which I cunningly emailed him. They're sorry that my students didn't get the grades they earned. They like academies. They believe ofqual. Sorry. They told ofqual what to say!

Dear Mr Dunford

Thank you for your email of 24 August, addressed to the Secretary of State, about GCSE results. As I am sure you can appreciate, the Secretary of State receives a large amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. It is for this reason I have been asked to reply.

I was sorry to read that your students did not achieve the grade they were expecting in their GCSE English exam. We know that this year’s grading of GCSE English qualifications has caused significant concern for many students and sympathise with all young people who took GCSEs this year and didn’t get the results they expected.

Ofqual, the independent regulator for qualifications in England, has conducted an investigation of the grading decisions taken by exam boards. Ofqual published its initial report on 31 August and this can be obtained via the Ofqual website at www.ofqual.gov.uk/files/2012-08-31-gcse-english-awards-2012-a-regulatory-report.pdf .

The report states that for English GCSEs this summer, a complex and unique set of circumstances came together to create a highly unusual situation for schools and students. Ofqual found that the standard set for English GCSEs this year is comparable with the standard in previous years and the June 2012 grade boundaries were properly set. Therefore, candidates’ work was graded at the right standard. Ofqual has also found a greater variation between schools’ results than would have been expected. It is looking into the issues further and will produce a final report in October.

The Education Committee of the House of Commons is also looking into the issues, and it took oral evidence from Ofqual, headteacher representatives and the Secretary of State on 11-12 September. Details can be found on the Parliament website at: www.parliament.uk/education-committee . The Committee’s investigation continues; as a next step it has asked further detailed questions of Ofqual.

Decisions on standards, results, grades and grade setting for GCSEs are the responsibility of exam boards and Ofqual which is accountable to Parliament. Ofqual rightly takes its responsibilities over tackling grade inflation and maintaining standards in qualifications over time, very seriously. Ministers and the Department have no role in making decisions about grade boundaries – this is a matter for exam boards and the regulator.

Because of the concerns expressed about grading, exam boards have made early resit opportunities available to affected candidates in November. Should you have specific concerns about grading decisions, which have affected your school, you should approach the relevant exam board or Ofqual directly to discuss them further.

In the meantime, we look to Ofqual and the exam boards to make sure that the current GCSEs and the systems that underpin them are as robust as possible for the young people who will take them in the coming year.

Regarding your comments about academies, the Government trusts professionals and believes that teachers and headteachers should control schools and have more power over how they are run. The experience of the City Technology Colleges in England and evidence from the best performing education systems from across the world shows that more freedom for schools means better results.

Academies also help drive improvements across the whole education system through collaboration and partnerships with other schools. Allowing more schools to benefit from Academy status within a supportive network is a crucial part of our approach to school improvement and we expect all academies to work collaboratively with each other and with other local schools.

Ministers believe the creation of academy chains is key to sustained locally driven improvement across the system. We are now experiencing partnerships across the country where academies are using their new freedoms to work together, to share expertise and resources and to provide local solutions that are accountable and sustained.

Our best schools are now playing a key leadership role in driving the improvement of the whole school system, through creating and leading new academy chains.

The Government wants all partners to address poor performance within their chain so that all pupils in it have a good experience of school. We will hold each chain to account for the collective standards of its membership and we will expect immediate solutions to be developed by chain partners for any fall in standards.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write.

As part of our commitment to improving the service we provide to our customers, we are interested in hearing your views and would welcome your comments via our website at www.education.gov.uk/pcusurvey

Yours sincerely

Jenny Crowley
Public Communications Unit

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2012/0057937. To contact the Department for Education, please visit www.education.gov.uk/contactus

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